(4 minute read)
Sometimes you just want to scream. You’ve asked, and you’ve asked and you’ve asked, but that person close to you persists in their irritating behavior. Perhaps it’s your husband’s tendency to offer you solutions when all you want is someone to listen to you. Or your mother’s habit of criticizing your child rearing when she comes to visit. Or your teenage son’s refusal to even acknowledge your presence at the breakfast table. Or your wife’s habit of trying to control your alcohol consumption at a party.
And every time your partner or family member does it again, you think of how many times you’ve asked them. It feels like they don’t care — after all, if they did care about you, they’d see how upset you are, and they’d stop. Perhaps it even feels like they’re doing it deliberately. And you wonder what it is that makes other people so infuriatingly difficult.
Some years ago I found myself being that “difficult person”. My wife used to instruct me to close the verandah door 2/3 of the way when we left the room. (Never mind why — suffice it to say that I didn’t consider her reasons valid.) She would become annoyed with me if I forgot, which I often did. It became a source of conflict between us: she would remind or criticize, and I would mentally sigh or perhaps tell her that it really didn’t matter if the door was all the way open or mostly shut. She would lay out her reasoning, and I would rebut her, then eventually do what she wanted while making it clear that I thought she was irrational. Then one day she changed the dynamic entirely. Rather than argue with me, she said simply “Yes, I know it looks silly to you, but it makes me feel better when the door is mostly closed.” I stopped arguing with her, and rarely forgot to close the door after that.
What changed? Initially, the argument was over which of us was right. Her telling me to shut the door was an implicit criticism of my tendency to leave the door open. And our arguments over the issue were an attempt to find out who was right and who was wrong. No one likes to be wrong, and so I resisted every argument she marshaled. But when she took away the criticism, took away the question of right or wrong, it freed me from the need to defend my position and allowed me to consider her feelings.
And this is what happens in so many conflicts. When you tell your husband to stop offering solutions and just listen, he feels criticized. When you tell your mother to not judge your child rearing skills, she feels criticized too. As does your teenage son when you tell him to greet you at the breakfast table. And your wife when you tell her to stop trying to manage your alcohol consumption.
Now, you may be entirely justified in criticizing your loved one. Your request (or even demand) that they change may seem reasonable to any observer. Justice may be entirely on your side. But it won’t matter. If the other party feels criticized, they will perform whatever mental gymnastics required to put themselves in the right. They will justify their behavior because of something you did, or accuse you of misinterpreting them and being mean, or claim their behavior is entirely reasonable. They might keep their objections to themselves, agree with you but revert right back to their objectionable behavior.
So the key to asking other people to change is this: Remove any hint of criticism from your request. Easy to say. And oh, so hard to do. Particularly since you are generally pretty annoyed with them. So here’s a checklist to help:
Acknowledge good intentions. When you start off by noting that your loved one isn’t deliberately trying to drive you crazy, that does two things: It makes them more open to listening, and it helps reduce your own level of critical feelings. For example:
To the solution-offering husband: “I know you feel bad hearing about my problem and that you really want to help, which is why you offer solutions instead of just listening.”
To the interfering mother: “I know you want to see me raise my children to be happy and successful, which is why you offer me lots of advice.”
To the grumpy teenager: “I understand you don’t feel very sociable in the morning and so saying good morning is hard work.”
To the alcohol-averse wife: “It must worry you to see me drink at parties which is why you try to help me drink less.”
State your feelings. You are entitled to feel the way you feel, and you’re entitled to let your loved one know how you feel when they do something. What’s more is, no one can deny your feelings. You can argue forever about who said what, or did what, or meant what, but no one can tell you that you didn’t feel a certain way. For example:
“When you offer a solution I feel frustrated and I don’t want to talk any more.”
“When you offer advice on raising my children, I feel like I’m a child again — incompetent and stupid.”
"When you don’t say good morning or even look at me, I feel hurt, like I’m a bad parent.”
“When you tell me in front of other people that I’ve had enough alcohol I feel humiliated and rebellious.”
If your loved one tells you that you shouldn’t feel this way, or that you’re over sensitive, you can tell them that this is just the way you feel, right or wrong, and you just want them to know that.
Ask for their help. If you tell your loved one that they have to change, that once again puts you in the right and them in the wrong. If you invite them to work with you on a solution, you are both in the right, trying to solve a problem together. For example:
“I need to be able to discuss things with you, and I value your help, so how can we talk in a way that doesn’t leave me feeling bad?”
“I’m afraid if you give me advice on raising my children I’ll feel incompetent and stupid again. What can we do about that?”
“Is there any way we can avoid me feeling like a bad parent and hurt when I see you in the morning?”
“How can we ensure I don’t feel humiliated at parties?”
Don’t be discouraged when you don’t get a direct answer. The purpose of asking for their help isn’t to solve the problem on the spot: it’s to get them thinking about how they contribute to making you feel bad, and how they can help to make you feel better.
Be patient and persistent. Your loved one is probably accustomed to feeling defensive on the issue, and even if you haven’t criticized them, they’ll respond in the same defensive way. They’ll try to pull you into the old style of arguing; the old, familiar dance that you’ve probably been at for years. Resist the temptation. Instead, repeat the first two steps — acknowledging their good intentions and re-stating your feelings.
By following these four steps, you can completely change the dynamics of many conflicts. Taking the question of blame out of a fight frees both sides up to consider solutions without having to admit to being wrong.
And yet…there are times when this strategy will fail utterly. No matter how non-blaming you are, no matter how many times you restate your feelings and ask for their help, your loved one will refuse to change. What do you do then? Read my next blog post for the answer.